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Defining Expat Assistance Programs

Employment assistance programs, expat assistance programs, emergency assistance programs - whatever you call them, there is an increasing trend of group health insurance plans to include assistance services to plan members. The thing is, what exactly are these and how can an expat moving to a new country utilize them?

Posted on Jun 29, 2016 by Rob McBroom

In an effort to stand out from their competitors health insurers have started offering beneficial extras that increase the usefulness of their plans. One of the most popular categories of extras is wellness related benefits, which many insurers have also identified as a major trend according to our recent report. In the past half decade or so HR departments around the world have been pushing hard to implement wellness programs and have been increasingly demanding wellness coverage to be included in their health insurance coverage. From yearly health checks to healthy lifestyle coaching, insurers are offering an ever-increasing wealth of wellness benefits in group/employee plans.

With international health insurance plans designed for companies who send people abroad, there is one benefit that Pacific Prime has seen a lot of buzz about in the past couple of years: Expat assistance programs. Most of the major health insurance providers are now offering some form of expat assistance program, but many individuals on group plans may not be aware of or are not utilizing them. In this article, we take a look at what exactly these programs are and how they can help expats settle in new countries.


What are expat assistance programs?

Expat assistance programs - also commonly known as employee assistance programs or international assistance programs - aim to provide support to help expats who have either moved to a new country or are about to move to a new country manage their work, health, and life challenges.

Most of the assistance programs offered by insurers are offered free of charge as long as you maintain a plan with the insurer, while others may charge a small fee per person on the plan. The programs are most commonly accessed via either an online portal or a 1-800/hotline number that is monitored by real people. Some programs even go so far as to staff the programs with highly qualified employees such as psychologists and even medical professionals.     

One thing to note here is that expat assistance programs are most commonly offered as extra benefits on group plans, especially international group plans.


Types of expat assistance programs

As with other types of benefits, the type of assistance program offered by insurers will be different for each insurer and even some plans. At the highest level, some insurers will offer their own in-house plan that is staffed by people who represent the company. Other insurers will work with a partner who specializes in providing expat assistance such as International SOS or Morneau Shepell.

Regardless of whether the program is in-house or third party, they can usually be grouped into one of three different types of assistance programs. These include:

  • Full assistance - These programs are designed to offer expats and their families full assistance including help with financial, legal, health and even support when one moves abroad. For example, if you move to a new country or even city, you can contact employees at this program for help with setting up your finances, finding a healthcare specialist, ideas on meeting people, etc.

  • Emergency assistance - These programs are designed to help during medical emergencies. If, for example, you are on vacation and need to find a doctor you can call a hotline. Staff at the hotline will help find a doctor close by who is in your network, currently open, and even make arrangements for you to get there and start the billing process so all you have to do is show up. These hotlines can also help arrange for a medical evacuation should you need to be evacuated to a location with better-suited care. This type of program is also commonly offered to expats who secure individual health insurance plans.

  • Health support - These programs are designed at helping plan members remain healthy or improve their health. Some of the best plans have staff who work with you to set fitness goals, recommend ways you can reach them, and can provide nutrition advice based on where you will be living. Like emergency assistance plans, this type of program usually, has staff who can recommend medical professionals within the plan network.


How do I know if my insurance plan offers expat assistance?

To be honest here, some providers do a better job of educating their policyholders about whether they offer an assistance program or not. Some will include flyers, or will notify you with information on how to access and utilize the program, while others will simply include the support information on their online portal. Others will rely on HR teams to inform/educate their staff on the program.

Generally speaking, if you are an individual you will usually be told either by your broker or the insurer themselves about the assistance program in place. If your plan is part of a company-sponsored plan then you will usually be informed of the program, and how to use it, through your HR department.

If you are unsure, you could always contact Pacific Prime China. Our staff will be able to tell you more about the type or program you have access to and how you can access it.  


Tips on getting the most out of your plan's expat assistance program

Should your health insurance plan have an assistance program, here are five tips to help you get the most out of the plan.

  • Know what type of program is offered - Because there is no set standard for expat assistance programs, the programs offered do differ by insurer. If you plan to utilize these programs, it would be a good idea to check with your HR team, or your plan documentation beforehand just to make sure you are fully aware as to what is included and how the program will help.

  • Utilize the plan before you move - Many of these programs are designed to help support you before and after you move, and can even provide you valuable information that you will need to know before you leave for your new home/country. If you contact the program before you move you may be able to find out whether you will be able to access medical care right away, and even where you can, or you may be able to learn what you can do there to keep fit, etc.

  • Don't be afraid to utilize the program after you move - You have access to these programs after you move and they can prove to be a big help even after you have settled in. Some for example, offer ongoing support for fitness or financial planning that can help you really enjoy your new home without worrying too much.

  • Remember that many assistance programs are private - What we mean by this is that the information shared with the program e.g., counseling requests, etc. is usually private. HR and plan managers usually won't have access to the information shared, but they may be told that X number of people utilized the program to receive support. We recommend talking with your provider or HR team to find out exactly how much if any, information is shared.

  • Talk with your HR team - Your HR team can be a valuable source of information before and after you move countries. When it comes to assistance programs they should be able to help you figure out how to use it and may even be able to help set it up so your family can utilize the assistance as well.

As always, if you have questions about your health insurance plan, feel free to contact the team at Pacific Prime China.  


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